For an American Idol fan like myself, the flurry of staffing shakeups this week at The House That Kelly Clarkson Built have been the emotional equivalent of taking a sledgehammer to an outdated kitchen wall. Yeah, you knew it had to be done — and quickly — but still…with all the dust and destruction and a possible contractor named Nigel who you’re still not entirely sure you trust, it’s hard to know whether to be terrified, excited, or a little of both.
That said, I’m genuinely optimistic about the widely reported rumor (still not officially confirmed by Fox brass) that Jennifer Lopez has snagged a permanent seat in this high-stakes game of musical judges. If I’m going to carry the “renovation” theme into this paragraph — and you know that I am, of course — then J.Lo is like that slab of luxurious marble that you can only hope will be a perfect fit for your countertop. Nope, I’m not being facetious. Lest we forget, the “Jenny from the Block” singer was a warm and funny presence when she mentored the season 6 Idol contestants on Latin Night. Remember how she called Blake Lewis into the room to do a little beatboxing and help hopeless Haley Scarnato capture the rhythm of “Turn the Beat Around”? Or the way she pushed Melinda Doolittle to try to connect with her inner sex kitten on “Sway”? So what if J.Lo’s not the world’s greatest warbler? What she brought to her mentorship was a genuine interest in the contestants and a genuine ease in front of the cameras.
Still, it’s one thing to have the right materials for a redesign. It’s quite another to make sure they’re installed properly. And with that in mind, I’ve got a list of three lessons Lopez can learn from failed departing panelist Ellen DeGeneres. (As for the Internet buzz that Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler and Randy Jackson are in, while Kara DioGuardi is out, Fox and reps for the stars in question have declined to comment; I’ll keep chasing the news all weekend, so follow me on Twitter @EWMichaelSlezak for updates.)
1) Honesty is the best policy. If you had played a drinking game on season 9 performance nights and done a shot every time Ellen used the words “good,” “great,” or “really great” to describe a performance, you’d have had to make a weekly trip to the emergency room to have your stomach pumped. And I don’t think DeGeneres would disagree. “It was hard for me to judge people and sometimes hurt their feelings,” she said in a statement last night announcing her departure from the show. That’s a line of thinking Lopez needs to banish from the get-go. When a mother yells at a child to stop running into the road, is she worried about hurting his feelings? Hell no! J.Lo needs to remember that the greatest gift she can give to the next generation of Kelly Clarksons and Andrew Garcias and William Hungs is total, brutal honesty. There are worse fates than finding out you don’t have what it takes to become a professional singer. Better to find while there’s still time to go back to school or learn a trade, no?
2) Authority always wins. Early in Ellen’s Idol tenure, you could sense that her instincts about the performances were actually fairly accurate, but she always capped her tough critiques with a bland bit of praise that negated everything that had come before it — something along the lines of “That was way too much song for you, you missed half the notes, but…I really like you and I hope you’re back next week.” If Lopez wants to connect with the audience at home, and actually help the contestants in the process, she needs to learn how to instantly formulate an opinion about a performance — and then stick to that opinion regardless of what her fellow judges say. Sure, she’s not Jessye Norman, but as Simon Cowell taught us for the last nine years, it’s the sharpness of your critiques, not your personal vocal technique, that garners the public’s trust.
3) There’s no substitute for keeping it real. One of Simon’s greatest attributes as a reality TV judge is his ability to react to the performances in front of him, without ever latching onto a particular catchphrase (“Dawg!” “Package artist!”) or pre-scripted persona (i.e. “the funny one,” “the cougar,” “the imbecile”). You pretty much get the feeling that the guy shows up for work in a dumpy v-neck t-shirt, sits down at a table, listens to some kids sing, and (most of the time) says the first funny thing that comes to his mind. That shouldn’t be a problem for a woman who scored a huge hit with a song called “I’m Real,” right? If Lopez never forgets that at its heart, Idol is about discovering the next generation of young talent, not about foisting some contrived, “look at me!” shtick onto an unsuspecting public, she could begin a whole new chapter of her career as the woman who helped breathe new life into the nation’s No. 1 TV show.
How are you feeling about J.Lo as Idol judge? Is there anything else she can learn from Ellen’s abbreviated run on the show? And if, in fact, Nigel Lythgoe is determined to return to a three-judge format, who would you pick to sit to Lopez’s left and right come January?
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